1. Draw out the patterns
For most people, our habits follow ‘patterns’ that can be tracked. Things like that classic move of reaching for a chocolate bar in the ‘mid-afternoon slump’ at work. Or have you ever taken a particular route to work to pass your favourite coffee shop? That’s a pattern right there. And once we know what those patterns are, we can consider ways to change them.
As author James Clear identifies in an article about ‘habit triggers’, there are a few things that can influence our habit-forming behaviour patterns – from the time of day (the chocolate bar ) to our emotional state (ever find yourself scouring ASOS or Etsy when you’re bored?) or even encouragement from other people (more about that later).
If you can identify them, try writing them down. Then you can start thinking about alternative ways to overcome the patterns and therefore the habits.
2. Be prepared
In the end, your will power is the key factor in changing a bad habit, but there are a few things you can plan to give yourself a head start.
If you’re building up to stopping, you could try setting a fixed date for your last cigarette/shopping trip/donut to give you something to mentally prepare for. Or, if a ‘final date’ seems too, well, final, you could set some simpler goals, like only indulging on Saturday nights or only allowing yourself a takeaway coffee on Friday mornings.
You might want to review your social calendar too, if you think that going to certain places (and being with certain people) might scupper your good intentions. It could mean a dramatic change or a couple of small ones, but hey, if nothing changes, everything stays the same, right?
3. Re-think your routine
Few temptations just pop up out of nowhere, so think about the associations that bring yours to the fore. Think of the way that many people associate smoking with coffee and cigarettes - but those aren’t the only two culprits.
For some of us, it’s tea that has no place without a cigarette or a biscuit. Or maybe for you it’s the classic cheese and wine combo, or a less obvious one like always getting a takeaway after collecting the kids from a weekday club. Identifying these accidental routines can help you avoid them.
4. Remember why you’re doing it
Quitting any habit can feel like a punishment at times, but it helps to turn that negative feeling of ‘denial’ into a positive by re-visiting your reasons for giving up.
Listing reasons in your head is one thing, but if you note them down – on paper or in digital form – you’ll have a hard copy to reach for if your cravings come a’calling. Try to be as honest as possible about why you’re really stopping. In other words, instead of just writing ‘to save more money’, try to go further and write down what you’re saving for – it’ll make the end goal more real.
Other examples might be ‘to get fitter, so I can do more with my kids’ or ‘to tone up so I’ll be more confident on holiday’. Being more descriptive will help you keep your eyes on the prize.
5. Reach for replacements
There’s no doubt that giving up a type of food, drink or activity in our lives is bound to leave a gap. But those empty spaces can turn into booby traps if they’re not filled. That’s where finding alternatives could save the day.
Firstly, try to work out if the gap you need to fill has been left by the thing you’ve given up, or a routine you used to always have. In other words, are you missing sugar (for example), or the regular habit of always heading to your local shopping centre on a Saturday morning.
If it’s sugar or a few glasses of the sparkly stuff you’re cutting down on, the positive news is that there are lots of sugar-free and non-alcoholic alternatives in supermarkets these days. It might take a bit of sampling to find drinks, foods or snacks that come close to the ones you’ve cut out, but that can be fun in itself. Why not hunt around for a few different mini bottles of alcohol-free wine sometime, or allow yourself a triple low-sugar dessert-tasting session (yes please)?
Filling gaps in time needn’t be any trickier than replacing food or drink, but may call for a bit more imagination and organising. Joining clubs is a great way to completely change your normal routine, so if you’ve been thinking of taking up that sport or musical instrument from your school days again, now’s the time! (And because you’ll be around other people, you’ll be less likely to listen to the devil on your shoulder.)
6. Reward yourself
For most so-called ‘bad’ habits, just giving up should have a positive effect on how you feel – whether in your health and looks, or simply through the sense of pride and achievement.
But quitting or even changing a habit is damn hard work, so you’re entitled to reward yourself. Just having that ‘treat’ to work towards could be the inspiration you need on tough days.
If that reward is something tangible (like a holiday or a household item), you could carry a picture of it around with you (your phone background, maybe?), so that every time you see the picture you’re reminded of what’s in store if you stick to your guns.
If your habit was expensive, you could start to carry a second wallet where you can siphon off the cash you would have otherwise spent. Or, if you have B Current, B Instant Savings Account and app, you could move the money into your B savings account and even set up a specific Savings Pot. It’ll quickly add up, then you can have fun deciding what to spend it on.
Whatever you’re trying to cut out, remember to be firm but fair with yourself – you’re unlikely to succeed by beating yourself up. Be kind, be determined, and be free of that monkey on your back.
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